Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Merry Month of Shojo Review #16: STELLAR WITCH LIPS

 This titles is a veritable mash-up of shojo sub-genres, along with influences both old and new.  If only that mash-up were as graceful as the magical girls on its pages.

STELLAR WITCH LIPS (Majo Kaito LIPS), written by Hana Kagami with art by Kotoko Ichi.  First published in 2019 and first published in North America in 2020.


Miku Hoshino is just as eager to help others as she is about her favorite boy band, even if doing so means missing out at a concert at the local museum.  That's all the proof her homeroom teacher Mari needs to pass on her magical girl powers to Miku.  With the application of a magical lipstick, Miku transforms into the magical witch Stellar Lips Star Crimson, The Sixth Witch of the Night!  She is soon joined by two other girls, who together must use their magic to keep others from stealing the mana of the people all while evading the attention of teen detective Ryusei Azuchi.


I really wanted to like Stellar Witch LIPS.  It's clear that Kagami loves older magical girls and incorporates that love into this story.  There's a lot of Sailor Moon in this premise, along with a bit of Saint Tail and even a touch of Wedding Peach thanks to the magic make-up.  That's not even getting into the witchy nature of the powers, which calls back to the very origins of the genre.  Alas, all the joy of this magical girl mash-up is drained away by its breakneck pacing and shallow characters.

Kagami is seemingly determined to get through this story as quickly as possible at all times.  That leaves no time for things like 'sensible exposition" or "nuance of any sort."  The main characters are basically stock models: Miku is the genki girl, Shizuku is Class President, Yume is shy and sheltered.  As you might imagine, the supporting cast gets even less to work with.  Mari's defining characteristic is her exhaustion, and she's basically forgotten after handing over her powers to Miku.  The villains are interchangeable dudes who cackle about mana.  It's telling that the most complex character is Ryusei, and that's only because he's a mash-up of two different shojo love interest archetypes.  He's not only our standard-issue Dark Haired Moody Love Interest, but also the Rival Teen Detective you would expect from a phantom thief (complete with ridiculous backstory).

Because the story is speedrunning itself, all those disparate old-school influences never really get the time and space to properly mix.  The phantom thief elements don't really make any sense when all anyone is stealing is energy (even if they manifest it into some sort of mystical gem).  The girls get stylish costume-changes as part of their magical girl transformations, but make absolutely no attempt to disguise themselves.  This renders Ryusei's endless confusion about whom this mysterious girl might be (despite many up-close encounters/knock-out kisses) all the more hilariously stupid.  There's barely a sense of what (or whom) these girls are fighting, or what their powers are beyond shouting nonsense words to deliver spells.  The whole thing comes off like a confetti cake mix that's barely stirred and only half-baked before it was frosted.  In short, it's a mess.


What drew me to this series was Kotoko Ichi's cover art, and I don't think anyone can blame me.  There's just something about those jewel-toned colors against a shimmering night sky that speaks to the teen girl inside me, compelling me to pick it up.  It certainly captures some of that 90s shojo aesthetic with its swirling hair, lacy yet stylish fashion, and veritable explosions of flowers, and I suspect that at least some of these character designs are purposeful callbacks to the likes Magic Knight Rayearth or Tokyo Mew Mew.  The art is at its best when it has plenty of room, which usually coincide with either the transformation sequences or the more romantic moments between Miku and Ryusei.  Sadly, these moments are few and far between.  The rest of the time Ichi is trying to fit all that excess into small, angular panels thrown together in the most haphazard fashion, and the end result is pure visual chaos.


As much as I can appreciate how much Stellar Witch LIPS calls back to the classics of its genres, it never comes together into a cohesive whole.  It spoils whatever magic it tries to craft and just leaves you wanting to read the manga that inspired them instead.

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